The Year in Music, Part 2: The Top 5 Albums of 2011

Yesterday Landon and I posted our respective Top 5 Songs of 2011 lists.

Today we bring you our top five albums.

The album is a luxury in times like these. So much music–like so much life–is spliced up into episodic units for consumption during the commute or the wait at the doctor’s office. Maybe this has raised the bar for songwriting and maybe it hasn’t.  It’s definitely made it more difficult for a music consumer like me to experience a collection of 10-15 songs as a unified work. This list is something of an effort to listen to music with ears tilted in that direction.

To make it onto this list, an album has to be enjoyable from beginning to end–no skipping around to the three of four tracks on it I like. By that standard the first one on the list blows all the others away. Something of a perverse irony registers at this point, because a really good album demands a sustained investment of attention, and lacking the emotional or intellectual energy, or lacking the time, for such an investment means that a great album doesn’t get listened to all that often. It’s like a really good wine or a limited edition Snickers Dark.

The other side of that perverse irony is that albums containing a couple of dynamite songs may never get the benefit of a complete listen. That’s why an album like Thao and Mirah isn’t on this list, because I didn’t have the patience to give every track not titled “I Dare You” a fair shake.

Here they are, then: the five albums from 2011 that I’d feel most confident putting on without interruption for a long road trip, a party, or a quiet evening at home. Here’s the link to Landon’s list (bonus points for whoever finds the Album on both our lists)

1. Destroyer, “Kaputt”

It’s almost hard to tell independent tracks apart on this album, and the whole thing feels like it could have been released in 1986. But that doesn’t make it gimmicky. It’s smooth and melodic and catchy and engaging and so, so interesting from beginning to end.

Sample: “Savage Night at The Opera”

2. Bon Iver, “Bon Iver”

I resisted this one because indie music fans are supposed to adore Bon Iver in the same way Star Wars fans are supposed to worship George Lucas. But resistance is futile. It’s so good. Justin Vernon’s falsetto, the electronic tinkering, the marching band-like percussion–it’s very compelling, and there’s no one track that takes attention away from the others, even if “Holocene” got a Grammy nomination (a fact that is supposed to enrage the bearded bespectacled faithful?). Whatever. This album is full of depth and texture, and it’s beautiful.

Sample: “Holocene”

3. David Bazan, “Strange Negotiations”

That David Bazan was the frontman of a Christian rock band and now writes songs full of profanity was an intriguing intro to this record back in June. I totally missed his first solo album, but music writers had a blast writing it up as Bazan’s break-up with God. Bazan’s reasons for falling out of faith (if that’s indeed accurate) are his own, and, frankly, I don’t really care. “Strange Negotiations” is a gritty product in its own right, and it is diminished by parsing its tracks for evidence of a religious beef. I listened to this album almost daily for about two months and kept discovering lyrics and notes I hadn’t appreciated before. It’s pretty intellectually rigorous (“I know it’s dangerous to judge/but man you gotta find the truth and when you find that truth don’t budge/until the truth you’ve found begins to change/and it does, I know”), which is what I most like about it.

Sample: “People”

4. The Decemberists, “The King is Dead”

The last time I got all geeked up for a Decemberists release I was left feeling flawed because I didn’t like it, and there’s this flannel-clad vibe out there that leads you to believe that if you don’t like The Decemberists it’s not a flaw in the music but in your intellect. “The King Is Dead” is the most mainstream thing The Decemberists have ever done, so I’m a little embarrassed to have liked it so much. On balance, it’s not as epic as “Picaresque“, and it doesn’t have any fist pumpers like “The Rake’s Song,” but it’s supremely listenable without compromising the narrative identity that makes this band such a cultural gem (i.e. “We all do what we can/we endure our fellow man/and we sing our song to the head frame’s creaks and moan”). Also, I saw them in concert this year, and the broad smile that show put on my face for two hours hurt for a week).

Sample: “Calamity Song”

5. Dolorean, “The Unfazed”

It doesn’t feel like an album like this is written with year-end-list ambition. It’s full of uncomplicated melodies on which hang cigarette pack lyrics delivered by serviceable vocals. I feel like any two of those qualities without the third would make “The Unfazed” pretty pedestrian, and, thankfully, that’s strictly hypothetical. All the tracks on the album gel together in a really pleasant whole that’s not overly ambitious. I don’t know how many times I put this record on at the house on a constant loop, humming along to melodies for which I hadn’t yet learned the words. Also, I felt like I was recommending the album to almost everyone I talked to about music all year.

Sample: “If I Find Love”

There you have it. Thanks for reading and listening. Please chime in with your favorite music of the year.

2 thoughts on “The Year in Music, Part 2: The Top 5 Albums of 2011

  1. I’ve enjoyed reading your musical thoughts, Rocky. You’ve given me some songs and bands to look into soon.

    “The King is Dead” was my top album this year. It was my first experience with The Decemberists and I loved it. ‘This is Why We Fight’ first caught my attention, but I think ‘Down By the Water’ was my favorite.

    I really liked Mumford & Sons too. ‘The Cave’ is probably my overall favorite song of the year. I can’t stop playing it – out loud and in my head. But as a whole, it wasn’t quite as compelling as King is Dead.

    Florence & the Machine’s “Shake it Out” was another song I couldn’t stop playing. Oddly, I’ve found I like it on the radio better than on the video.

    As you say here, I mostly passed on Bon Iver. But people whose opinion I respect keep bringing it up. Guess I’ll have to give it a chance.

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